July 10, 2016 § 2 Comments
Edvard Munch. The Storm
As a very young woman, I liked the word “regret.” I liked the way it sounded, its Frenchness. “Je ne regrette rien” comes to mind, of course, but I don’t think it was that song, more swaggering and maudlin than I would have appreciated at 18, that drew me to the word. I see it in print: black on white, the discreet letters with that fat g in the middle. Everything regretted (still desired) lurks within that g. A Google search gives me: “from Old French regreter ‘bewail (the dead),’ perhaps from the Germanic base of ‘greet’ (weep; cry.)”
Regret also sounds like my own first name, though I didn’t realize that until I started writing this. Mostly I liked it because it was a signifier of a lived life and of melancholy, and while I had plenty of the latter—and stubbornly clung to it—the former was still a mystery. One cannot regret without having done something, unless one regrets doing nothing or not enough—and even that seemed oddly appealing to me at 19 or 21: languid, somnolent, poetic. Sometime around then, or perhaps a couple of years later, I read Henry James’ great novella The Beast in the Jungle, which is all about the life unlived, death-like regret, and how it can be created, piece by piece, by a longing for beauty, mystery, the sublime.
I had a longing for beauty, mystery, the sublime. It was the part of myself I was most proud of. I thought it would take me to the tops of mountains, the depths of oceans, distant magical cities. I wouldn’t be so foolish as the man in the story, though. I knew that, just as I knew that I wanted to write with as much breathtaking poise and discernment as James, albeit with a bit more sex. And I haven’t been (as foolish, I mean). I have been differently foolish. This is not the place to list all my mistakes, especially because even now I can’t tease out what were really mistakes and what is the ongoing mistake to consider something a mistake. But I am well acquainted with regret.
It is corrosive, unrelenting. It is a constant yammer, the obverse of the self-consciousness of youth, which thinks itself so different as to be monstrous, while regret knows one is so similar as to be banal and will beat you about the head for it. Regret is neither generous nor kind. I associate it with those travellers (in fiction as in life) who fasten on strangers and pour out their resentments and self-pity, hour upon hour, into a time stretched to forever. At best, this is comedy. I think of Lot’s wife who was turned into a pillar of salt because she looked over her shoulder. I was never a bible student so I assumed religious people knew what this meant and only recently discovered that there is a bit of discussion about it. Did her action reveal her longing for what was left behind (including her daughters), or did she merely suffer the effect of gazing upon the face of the destroying God? What does salt have to do with it? The story of Lot’s wife’s is akin to the Orpheus and Eurydice story. An utterly human reaction, glancing back to make sure she really follows, means the rule broken and the wife lost.
When I first read them, I found these stories unfair. Not that I didn’t understand they were metaphors; I still found them unfair. It takes age to bring a different perspective, to see the clear and present danger of too much looking back and therefore the need for such tales, opaque as they may be to young readers. The implicit message is: trust God (or the god). I don’t, actually, but I admit I ought to trust something; would be happier if there were an area of life, loosely called the spirit, where I could let go and believe that if this is not the best of times and circumstances, it’s the only one I have and therefore, by default, the best. It is a time infinite until it is over, minutes upon minutes upon hours, and who can say any of us deserve more than this unfathomable magic?
There is a place for regret, perhaps the place I imagined at 20; the older person, standing by a window looking out at the rain, mind touching lightly upon wrong turns, wrongdoing, feeling a shiver of sorrow and something else, something ineffable and French. The older person is beautifully dressed, in a spacious and well appointed library, standing on two healthy limbs, looking at a landscape that does not include leering demons, crazed assault rifle murderers, mutant giant insects, unnamed evil from beyond the stars.
My library is not spacious (it is also my bedroom and work space). There’s no room to stand by the window because boxes of jewelry-making supplies and old notebooks are piled everywhere, and the windows are dirty anyway. And if I did look, because I do look, this direction or that, inside and out, what I see too often is leering mutant evil from beyond the stars.
I regret that.
Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming
It must be coming, mustn’t it? Churches
and saloons are filled with decent humans.
A mother wants to feed her daughter,
fathers to buy their children things that break.
People laugh, all over the world, people laugh.
We were born to laugh, and we know how to be sad;
we dislike injustice and cancer,
and are not unaware of our terrible errors.
A man wants to love his wife.
His wife wants him to carry something.
We’re capable of empathy, and intense moments of joy.
Sure, some of us are venal, but not most.
There’s always a punchbowl, somewhere,
in which floats a…
Life’s a bullet, that fast, and the sweeter for it.
It’s the same everywhere: Slovenia, India,
Pakistan, Suriname—people like to pray,
or they don’t,
or they like to fill a blue plastic pool
in the back yard with a hose
and watch their children splash.
Or sit in cafes, or at table with family.
And if a long train of cattle cars passes
along West Ridge
it’s only the cattle from East Ridge going to the abattoir.
The unbroken world is coming,
(it must be coming!), I heard a choir,
there were clouds, there was dust,
I heard it in the streets, I heard it
announced by loudhailers
mounted on trucks.
December 21, 2009 § Leave a comment
The advantage of age is knowing things, not just having heard or read them. Like: if my perspective sucks, get outside it. There are ways out and I know them. But I keep falling into what for me was the Great Trap, the original sin—thinking I had to fix the insides before I went out, before anybody saw. I don’t believe this anymore but I still fall into the ruts I made so doggedly, digging through my psyche to find the bone that was never there, that was an absence of a bone, what a shrink would be quite happy with, but even though I’m ferociously psychological I’m also very literal, and I wanted to FIND THE FUCKING THING AND GET IT OUT, then tidy up, plant some flowers, comb my hair before inviting people over.
Meanwhile the cat cries piteously. He’s only been fed twice, with treats on top. Yet his desire for food is real and deep; it’s just that he isn’t actually hungry. I apologize to him for his eating disorder. When you castrate an animal and make him live indoors, is it surprising he becomes overly attached to the last remaining instinctual pleasure? It helps when I soothe him. I know he purrs to manipulate me, but it comforts him as well. Then he feels strong enough to attack his sister, which any addiction counselor would call progress, since the violence is merely temper, and no real damage is done.
I digress. Perhaps. The point of the cats was to divert me from myself, which has worked, up to a point. I have incorporated them into my ego-myth, I deluge them with love songs, maternal longings and endless small talk, but they remain themselves anyway.
To amend the first paragraph: digging through my psyche in conversation or writing-for-the-public is very different from doing it in my head or a notebook I’ll burn on my deathbed. Once it becomes subject to communication, the pieces of my obsession rearrange themselves, strive not to repeat (and bore), thus having to be, at least briefly, not true obsession but rather its ambassador.
And, yes, I wonder: what is the point of this? Melancholy is a condition one strives to be rid of; if, at the same time, one strives to make it ‘beautiful, artful’, isn’t this collusion? No, because it works? No, because it makes others feel better as well, when it works?
When I was 18 or even 25, I thought there were solid answers to psychological, philosophical and spiritual questions. Later, I became distrustful of the way so many (famous) writers celebrate ambiguity and shadow. Consider the popularity of the word ‘liminal’ in poetry and criticism of the last 2 decades. I know reality is various, nuanced, subjective and/or unknowable—in fact, nothing but thresholds; at the same time, all of a piece we mostly can’t even glimpse. But my problem is fear and dithering (not plural, it’s the and that’s the problem). In college, my rather brilliant papers never got above A- because I was constitutionally unable to present an argument without reservations. And since there was never room to discuss my many, many reservations, my appreciation of other interpretations, etc, ad infinitum, the end result was a softening of every idea, a blurring of focus.
Where are the cats, you ask? Why aren’t they herding you toward digression into something concrete? Yeah, this is a blog entry so I’ll quit. (And now I’m depressed that I don’t have time to write a proper essay, but must get on with the paying work….)
Most explicit-- the sense of trap as a narrowing cone one's got stuck into and any movement forward simply wedges once more-- but where or quite when, even with whom, since now there is no one quite with you--Quite? Quiet? English expression: Quait? Language of singular impedance? A dance? An involuntary gesture to others not there? What's wrong here? How reach out to the other side all others live on as now you see the two doctors, behind you, in mind's eye, probe into your anus, or ass, or bottom, behind you, the roto- rooter-like device sees all up, concludes "like a worn-out inner tube," "old," prose prolapsed, person's problems won't do, must cut into, cut out . . . The world is a round but diminishing ball, a spherical ice cube, a dusty joke, a fading, faint echo of its former self but remembers, sometimes, its past, sees friends, places, reflections, talks to itself in a fond, judgemental murmur, alone at last. I stood so close to you I could have reached out and touched you just as you turned over and began to snore not unattractively, no, never less than attractively, my love, my love--but in this curiously glowing dark, this finite emptiness, you, you, you are crucial, hear the whimpering back of the talk, the approaching fears when I may cease to be me, all lost or rather lumped here in a retrograded, dislocating, imploding self, a uselessness talks, even if finally to no one, talks and talks. --Robert Creeley
* “…[The}word pale has nothing to do with the adjective for something light in colour except that both come from Latin roots. The one referring to colour is from the Latin verb pallere, to be pale, whilst our one is from palus, a stake.
A pale is an old name for a pointed stake driven into the ground and — by an obvious-enough extension — to a barrier made of such stakes, a fence (our modern word pole is from the same source, as are impale and paling). This meaning has been around in English since the fourteenth century. By 1400 it had taken on various figurative senses — a defence, a safeguard, a barrier, an enclosure, or a limit beyond which it was not permissible to go. The idea of an enclosed area still exists in some English dialects.
In particular, the term was used to describe various defended enclosures of territory inside other countries. For example, the English pale in France in the fourteenth century was the territory of Calais, the last English possession in that country. The best-known modern example is the Russian Pale, between 1791 and the Revolution of 1917, which were specified provinces and districts within which Russian Jews were required to live. Another famous one is the Pale in Ireland, that part of the country over which England had direct jurisdiction — it varied from time to time, but was an area of several counties centred on Dublin….”